[This is a review by SB Alec (Ridge Road SBs). It was the last film watched in person by the SB Film Society, a motley, but hirsute group that gathered sporadically to break up Vermont winters. SB SM]
by Silverback Alec
“Does Cutter’s Way test positive for noir? [Editor’s note: The phrase “test positive” sure has a different connotation today.] I would say yes. I love what noir novelist Raymond Chandler said: “The streets are dark with something more than night.” I’d say that fits this film to a T. Was it any good? Different question to be answered later.
It’s raining when Richard Bone leaves El Encanta and his sputtering Austin-Healey dies in a dark alley. A Cadillac pulls in behind him. A man jumps out, does something impossible to see, and then leaves in an all-fired hurry, almost running Bone down. The next day finds Rich in a room with curling cigarette smoke and shadows cast by a venetian blind (all very noir so far). He’s being questioned by a detective, but Bone can’t tell him much because—yeah—it was dark in that alley! Coal-black dark in corruption, but as Rich decides later, maybe not too dark to see the man who dumped a dead girl in a trashcan. It was a dark night, a dark alley, and a dark time in America.
After the cop’s questions, Bone, Cutter, and Cutter’s gal Moe go to the Fiesta parade. California sunshine floods the day, a juicy blond majorette is twirling a baton—”imagine what she could do with that thing, Rich”—and the faux founders of the American Riveria are on parade. All the glitter only makes the dark, darker. It’s the beginning of The Godfather. Outside, light and a wedding. Inside, the undertaker asking for blood.
Cutter is Bone’s friend, a Vietnam vet who’s missing an eye, an arm, a leg, and any remnant of nicety. He’s a volcano who blows often, offends bystanders, and alienates his friends. I can’t think of any noir investigator more hard-boiled or hard drinking than Cutter. His one redeeming quality is that he wants to investigate the murder of the girl.
His friend doesn’t. Like Rick in Casablanca, Rich Bone sticks his neck out for no one. Only now, right and wrong are on the line. Will he help Cutter take down J. J. Cord, the bigshot oil man and murderer? Like Hamlet he dithers. This is what drives the movie. Will Bone “walk” or will he finally step up like Rick at the airport? We know he wants Cutter’s wife—he is a gigolo, after all—but we don’t know if he’s got the right stuff until the end, and I’m not sure we know then.
Moe has stood by her man, but her sympathy has worn thin and her only solace is in a bottle. She is sad and disillusioned but not self-pitying. What an oddly attractive woman she is for one so haggard and emptied out.
Alienation, disillusionment, moral ambiguity—all classic noir themes.
Random thoughts: I loved the low-angle shot of the Cord building in downtown Santa Barbara and the one right afterward of the security guard sitting behind the desk. Power! Cutter grew on me, and I liked this line: “The routine grind drives me to drink; tragedy I take straight.” The soundtrack sounded familiar at times, especially the “singing saw” which reminded me of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Turns out a guy named Jack Nitzsche worked on the music for Cuckoo and Cutter’s Way. He also played keyboards briefly for The Rolling Stones and Neil Young. Ivan Passer directed Cutter’s Way. He and Milos Forman (director of Cuckoo) both came to the U.S. from Czechoslovakia. The Cutter camera man, Jordan Cronenweth, won an award for his work on Blade Runner, another noirish film.
The acting? Some critics thought John Heard’s Cutter was easy because all he had to do was act manic. Maybe, but I thought he was a great volcano. He was an obnoxious drunk and a war hero, which made for an oddly unlikable, likable character. He certainly kept the action lively (for instance, the night he plowed into a car blocking his driveway and then put on his army jacket to play the wounded war hero for the cop). Moe played her part pitch-perfect, not awash in bathos, just bowing the violin perfectly. And then there’s Bone, of course. One thing that might have interested audiences at the time was the question of cowardice. For those who faced the draft, did it take more courage to go to Vietnam or to stay? I’m not sure I know the answer, but I know it was a compelling question at the time. Cutter went. Bone didn’t. In Cutter’s mind, Bone always “walked.” And finally, at the end of the film, he didn’t. Or did he? I wonder what other Silverbacks think about the ending. Did Bone come through or no? Did he hold Cutter’s hand tight on the gun to leave fingerprints and protect himself as usual when he blasted Cord? Or, with his friend dying at his feet, did he finally join in Cutter’s Quixotic quest for justice? Or did he do both? At any rate, I think the Dude created a very believable, nihilist gigolo who might just have redeemed himself.
My favorite neo-noir is still Chinatown. I can’t say I loved Cutter’s Way—it was too sad, too painful to love—but I thought it was a good film, one that kept my attention.”